01 Dec Last Minute Appeal Letter Editing
1 December 2020
By David Allen, Development for Conservation
Just about everyone I know is sending out an appeal letter this week or next.
It’s that time of year. This has already been a surprisingly good year for fundraising, and we are pinning hopes of keeping it going on the letters we will mail in the next few days.
For some, this will be their only letter. For others, it is the second or third. Whichever camp you’re in, the following list may help you with last minute editing.
These are tips you can do quickly that will make a difference in your returns.
Pay attention to the first sentence and the PS.
Research shows that people who glance through appeal letters tend to read the first sentence and then skip to the PS note. Their decision to go back through the letter depends on their reaction to those two pieces. Does the first sentence grab you?
In 2020, we celebrated an important milestone.
What was your favorite outdoor adventure this year?
Coming down the trail, I saw her approaching – eyes wide with excitement.
Pro tip – Look at the second and third sentences. Often they are more compelling than the first. But if the reader doesn’t get that far……
Replace the word “need” with the word “opportunity.”
This is as much editing for tone as it is for the specific words. Avoid asking because you “need.” Offer the reader an “opportunity” to give, instead. An opportunity to protect, conserve, restore, or steward. An opportunity to make a difference.
Pro tip – For people who have already given this year – whom we are asking for an extra gift – consider highlighting how their previous gift has already made a difference. This could even be the subject for a lift note.
Highlight your use of the pronouns “we,” “us,” and “our.”
Literally – print out the draft letter and use a highlighter to mark every use of these pronouns. Notice the frequency – the weight – of their use. And then go back through, and in each case, ask yourself whether the pronoun explicitly includes the reader. If not, change the sentence to either eliminate the pronoun or rewrite it so that it does.
We can protect the rural character of the landscape we all love.
By acting quickly, we have an opportunity to save this land for future generations.
(Ambiguous, but OK.)
Your gift today will help us save this land for future generations.
(Does not include the reader – consider simply removing the word “us.”)
Pro tip – In many cases, you can simply eliminate the pronoun. Try that first.
Circle each number.
Effective fundraising letters appeal to the heart rather than to the intellect. Numbers get in the way. I recommend simply taking them out. All of them. Consider that only a tiny percentage of your readers know how big an acre is. So, forty acres – or worse, 27.6 acres – is doubly meaningless! If you absolutely must use a number, make sure to present it in relation to another number. For example, perhaps you found three of something this year where there was only one last year. But most of the time, metrics are not helpful in fundraising letters.
Pro tip – Use “lots” or “most” instead of the number.
Use the Flesch-Kincaid Reading Level test.
Few people will actually read your letter. Most will scan it if they spend any time with it at all. Smart people scan 6th grade reading material very quickly, and consequently, effective fundraising letters are written at a 6th grade level. The good news is that the reading level is easy to test. In Microsoft Word, run the spell check. At completion, you’ll get a pop-up box with “readability statistics.” Toward the bottom is the Flesch-Kincaid Reading Level score. Most college-educated writers will naturally write at an 11th-14th grade level. For effective fundraising letters, you will need to break up compound sentences and simplify word choices. (It gets easier with practice!)
Pro tip – Repeating one short sentence with just a few different words can be more effective than using the string. For that matter incomplete sentences are OK, too.
Ask for money.
Seems obvious, doesn’t it? Nonetheless, I still receive waaaaay too many letters every year that never really ask for money. They ask for “support.” Some ask for renewal. And some don’t really even ask for anything.
Ask for money. Ask for money!
Please consider a gift of $100 today to help protect this special place. You’ll be glad you did.
Pro tip – Multiple-page letters need an ask on each page.
Consider the letter graphically.
Go back to the idea that people are not reading the letter, but really only glancing at it. Hold the letter away from your body and give each page three seconds. Then close your eyes and ask yourself what stood out. If the answer is “the photo of people hiking,” or “in honor of our 50th anniversary,” you can do better. You want the answer to be “how your gift is making a difference,” or “please make a gift of $50.” You want the point of the letter to get through.
You can do this graphically. Set off the ask paragraphs with extra space both before and after. Enlarge specific words by boosting the font size. Use bold and underline and italics and all caps and color, BUT none of these things too much. Just enough to draw the eye to the primary message.
And while we’re right there, consider that those photos of people and salmon and landscapes are not helping you in the appeal letter. They look pretty. They are graphically pleasing. They draw the eye. But they draw the eye away from the message. Consider using a real photo – like one printed from Walmart – as an insert. Or printing that photo on the envelope instead of embedded in the letter. Both will be more effective.
There are a certain number of people who will give you money anyway. That’s why it is MUCH more important that you get a letter out at all than that you get one out that is perfect. These ideas are about making it better. You can even send out the exact same letter you mailed in October. (You might want to add in a short note about hoping they didn’t miss this the first time.)
One last note: I get pushback every year from people who have “done it their way” for years. Much of it relates to one-page letters versus four-page letters, but some comes from people who love embedding photos. After all, “their way” has worked well so far. Why change something that is working?
I don’t mind. In fact, I love it. Keep pushing back! I’m still learning every day, and I’m interested in learning more.
That something has “worked well so far” usually means that people have responded. At best it relies on this year’s results compared with last year’s. But that’s not the same thing as saying that it’s working. If not embedding photos would increase responses and raise 10% more money, would you do it? Even if it’s not the way you’ve always done it?
The answer lies in testing. Mail half with photos and half without. (Making sure the two samples are statistically identical of course.)
Or test four versus two pages.
Or specific asks versus “soft” asks.
Or lift notes versus plain.
If you are testing this year, I am explicitly interested in what you are testing and in your results. If you will send them to me, I will share them on this blog.
Cheers, and Have a great week.
Photo by 9883074 courtesy of Pixabay.
PS: Your comments on these posts are welcomed and warmly requested. If you have not posted a comment before, or if you are using a new email address, please know that there may be a delay in seeing your posted comment. That’s my SPAM defense at work. I approve all comments as soon as I am able during the day.